Louis Vitet

D'après une photographie de Pierre PETIT, gravure de BARRY, Portrait de Louis Vitet. Extrait du panthéon des illustrations françaises au 19e siècle publié sous la direction de Victor FROND, Paris, Abel PILON ed.

“I have sought a bad side in him. I have not found one (…) No weakness, no shadow.” Louis, sometimes known as Ludovic, Vitet was for Guizot the model of an ideal companion. At each step, in the important as in the less important things in life, Vitet was very close, and it was for this reason that in February 1874, a few months before his death, Guizot took the time and overcame the fatigue of old age to write a biographical note which he believed he owed this perfect friend, the last he had, who died in June 1873. This was also the last relatively substantial text written by him. Their meeting, if one is to believe him, took place in 1819. The grandson of a conventional mayor of Lyon, Vitet was seventeen at the time. He was part of a small group that was following the teaching of Théodore Jouffroy, a young philosophy professor in the Ecole Normale and the Bourbon college and a person to whom the group was attached. It was there that he made a lifelong friend of Tanneguy Duchâtel. Although he did not pursue his studies very far, since he did not need to do so to make a living, Vitet showed a curiosity of mind and a capacity to write which he was soon able to put to good use. After 1820, Guizot recruited him to render lectures he gave suitable for publication. The creation in 1824 of the newspaper Le Globe, an organ of young liberal France to which Jouffroy and his friends were all contributors, brought him even closer to Guizot who was sponsoring the enterprise. Vitet specialized in the field of literature, especially in the fine arts and supported the blossoming of romanticism. From then on, always with Duchâtel by his side, he was involved in all of Guizot’s intellectual and political projects. It was he who in 1827, found the name of the society destined to mobilize the electorate of the opposition, “Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera” (Heaven helps those who help themselves) whose manifesto he wrote and over which Guizot presided. In 1828, he was one of the founders of the Revue française, headed by Guizot. The colleague became a personal friend from before 1830. In the July Monarchy, they were inseparable. From October 1830, Guizot as Interior Minister created for him the post of Inspector General of Historical Monuments, where he was very active and where Mérimée replaced him in 1834. His friend Duchâtel, appointed Minister of Trade in April 1834 in the Molé cabinet, appointed him Secretary General of this ministry, which they both left in February 1836. In 1834, he was elected deputy of the Seine-Inférieure, which he represented continuously until February 1848, whilst still running the Commission of Historical Monuments, over which the Minister of Public Instruction Guizot presided by right. Naturally, Guizot enrolled him in the Société de l’Histoire de France

and in the committee appointed to publish the documents relating to the history of France. Finally, he entered the Council of State in 1836, where he became a pillar of the Finance section. An unwaivering supporter of the conservative majority and its leader Guizot, in which Duchâtel, the irremovable Minister of the Interior from 1839 to 1848, occupied a choice position, Vitet was never a minister, perhaps because he had no talent for public speaking, more probably as he had no desire to become one, busy as he was with his archeological research and cultivating a taste for artistic beauty. But his influence was not insignificant: “He was for the government, Guizot wrote, an advisor with an admirably fair, prudent and wise mind, rather than an ardent and efficient fellow-in-arms”. From 18th to 20th February 1848, at the request of Duchâtel, the Minister of the Interior, he tried in vain to intervene to prevent the planned banquet from turning into a riot. Deputy in the Législative in 1849, he bravely presided at the meeting of deputies in the town hall of the Xth arrondissement in December 1851, which proclaimed the downfall of the Prince-President, for which he served several days in prison.

From then on and for the following twenty years, Vitet devoted himself to the history of art, to academicsociability – he had been a member of the Académie Française since 1845 – and to friendship. When Guizot was in Paris, they saw each other, namely for dinner, two or three times a week and Vitet showed his friend “affectionate care” particularly after the death of Dorothée von Lieven.

Guizot then deposited at his home, for reasons we do not know but as a sign of exceptional trust, small metallic boxes containing original letters from the Princess. Vitet was also one of the small number of people who stayed at Val Richer. A regular contributor to the Revue des Deux Mondes, of which he became a shareholder, he published no less than eight long and glowing accounts of works published by Guizot, from his Memoirs to his Meditations on the Christian religion and to l’Histoire de France racontée à mes petits-enfants.

In the deep attachment felt by Guizot for Vitet, the latter’s wife added an extra interest. Cécile Perier, niece of Casimir, became Mme Vitet in 1832 : “in appearance the coldest person, beautiful without movement” in reality, “full of passion and wit, showing all of this only to her husband. Never has a man possessed more exclusively a woman, and a woman very worthy of being possessed”. One can understand that Guizot sought his company, whilst welcoming this perfect love in a marriage that had remained childless. The death of Cécile Vitet in 1858 plunged Louis into despair, which Guizot shared with an intensity all the more sincere since he had experienced the same mourning twice, and even three times.

In 1871, after publishing vibrant letters of patriotism, Vitet was elected deputy to the Assembly in Bordeaux, where he met Cornélis de Witt, Guizot’s son-in-law, in the group of liberal conservatives. After being tempted by a moderate Republic, one month before his death he had the time to vote against Thiers in May 1873, as in the good times of the July monarchy. His death profoundly marked Guizot: “I have never known a more charming, unpretentious mind, nor a character more reliable without promise and more dignified with simplicity”. Vitet was far from being a genius, but he had the intelligence to recognize Guizot’s strength and to admire and have affection for him without the slightest trace of jealousy. More than three hundred letters exchanged between them have been kept, a striking witness to this magnificent friendship.